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5 HTTP Security Headers You Need To Know For SEO

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5 HTTP Security Headers You Need To Know For SEO

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Security headers are easily overlooked in website audits.

While some may say that website security is not an SEO-related concern, it does become SEO-related when a site becomes hacked and search traffic dwindles to zero.

Security headers should be a top concern of everyone who publishes anything on the Internet.

The good news is that they are relatively simple to configure and will help keep your website and its visitors safe.

in this column, you’ll learn what security headers are and how they work as well as the top 5 security headers, how to implement them, which WordPress plugins you can use for setting security headers, and more.

Let’s get started!

What Are Security Headers?

Security headers are directives browsers must follow that are passed along through the HTTP header response.

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An HTTP header is a response by a web server to a browser that is trying to access a web page.

The header response communicates things such as when the web page does not exist (400 response header).

Or that it’s okay to download a font from Google but not to trust any other data outside of the website’s domain.

In that example, the part that tells the browser that it’s okay to download Google fonts but not trust any files originating elsewhere other than the website itself is a security directive.

A security directive like that will block a browser from downloading malicious files from another website.

Security headers introduce restrictions and instructions that prevent unintended security events.

Why Use Security Headers?

Automated bot software are constantly probing and testing websites for security weaknesses.

These vulnerabilities can be introduced by the content management system, by the JavaScript library used to add functionality, and for security weaknesses introduced by a plugin or a theme.

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Websites that use security headers are said to be hardened against security threats.

While a website can get along without using security headers by keeping its components up to date and using security plugins, doing so needlessly exposes the website and the site visitors to security risks.

For example, security plugins can’t stop ad injections that rob a site owner of ad revenue.

Perhaps the best reason to use security headers is because they are relatively easy to implement and ensure that a website keeps running normally.

Top 5 Security Headers

1. Content-Security-Policy (CSP)

A content security policy (CSP) helps to protect a website and the site visitors from Cross Site Scripting (XSS) attacks and from data injection attacks.

Cross-Site Scripting (XSS)

Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) exploits happen when hackers take advantage of a security hole to upload malicious scripts to a website which are then downloaded to a victim’s browser.

XSS attacks take advantage of flaws in a content management system that allows unexpected inputs to be injected because of insufficient user input file sanitization.

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For example, ordinarily, an email form should be coded to expect a restricted input.

A poorly coded form may allow some other input which can then lead to an injection of malicious files.

An XSS attack can be used to steal passwords or as part of a multi-step hacking event.

Injection Attacks

The Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) describes injection attacks as a serious security risk:

“Injection is an attacker’s attempt to send data to an application in a way that will change the meaning of commands being sent to an interpreter.

For example, the most common example is SQL injection, where an attacker sends “101 OR 1=1” instead of just “101”. When included in a SQL query, this data changes the meaning to return ALL records instead of just one.

…Frequently these interpreters run with a lot of access, so a successful attack can easily result in significant data breaches, or even loss of control of a browser, application, or server. Taken together, injection attacks are a huge percentage of the serious application security risk.”

The content security policy by itself does not 100% protect a site from attacks but it does help to diminish the possibility of a cross site scripting attack.

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A CSP header instructs the browser to only download resources from a set group of domains and only from those domains.

Any attacker that is downloading malicious scripts from another server outside of that trusted group will be blocked.

Creating a content security policy can be as strict or as lenient as a publisher requires.

Warning: However, setting one up can be a little tricky because you have to list all of the scripts and resources that are being downloaded from outside of your domain in order to whitelist them.

2. Strict-Transport-Security Header (HSTS)

The Strict-Transport-Security Header is also called the HTTP Strict Transport Security header (HSTS).

Many websites only have a 301 redirect from HTTP to HTTPS.

But that’s not enough to keep the website secure because the website is still vulnerable to a man-in-the-middle attack.

HSTS prevents an attacker from downgrading the HTTPS connection to an HTTP connection which then allows the attacker to take advantage of insecure redirects.

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For example, if a person types in example.com to access a site, without actually typing in the https part (or they simply type http out of habit), then the opportunity exists for a man-in-the-middle attack.

That kind of attack can compromise the site visitors’ connection to the website and any sensitive information exchanged between the visitor and the website becomes visible to the attacker.

For example, an attacker can intercept cookies that contain sensitive information like login credentials.

The United States government lists three scenarios where HTTPS can be downgraded to HTTP and subsequently allow an attacker to compromise security.

These are the three ways HTTPS can be downgraded:

  • When a user types “gsa.gov” into the URL bar, browsers default to using http://.
  • A user may click on an old link that mistakenly uses an http:// URL.
  • A user’s network may be hostile and actively rewrite https:// links to http://.

The HSTS header prevents this from happening by forcing the browser to absolutely not accept an HTTP connection.

The HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS) header tells the browser that the entire website should only be accessed by a secure HTTPS protocol.

Side Note: How To Preload HSTS Into Chrome

On a related note, Google Chrome has an HSTS Preload program where publishers can submit their sites to be listed by Chrome as only accessible via the HTTPS protocol.

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Many Chrome-based web browsers will subsequently preload these websites with HTTPS and only via HTTPS, hard coding that standard right into the browser.

Qualifying sites must already be serving the HSTS security header.

These are the four requirements needed to qualify for Chrome HSTS preloading:

  1. “Serve a valid certificate.
  2. Redirect from HTTP to HTTPS on the same host, if you are listening on port 80.
  3. Serve all subdomains over HTTPS. In particular, you must support HTTPS for the www subdomain if a DNS record for that subdomain exists.
  4. Serve an HSTS header on the base domain for HTTPS requests:- The max-age must be at least 31536000 seconds (1 year).- The includeSubDomains directive must be specified.- The preload directive must be specified.- If you are serving an additional redirect from your HTTPS site, that redirect must still have the HSTS header (rather than the page it redirects to).

You’ll find more information at hstspreload.org.

3. X-Content-Type-Options

This security header stops certain kinds of exploits that can happen, for example, through malicious user-generated content.

Browsers can “sniff” if a content is an image (.jpg), a movie (.mp4), or text, HTML, JavaScript, and other kinds of content that can be downloaded from a website.

The “sniffing” allows a browser to download the web page elements and correctly render them, in particular in situations when the metadata the browser needs to render the element is missing.

Sniffing allows the browser to figure out what the element is (an image, text, etc.) and then render that element.

Hackers however will try to trick browsers into thinking that a harmful JavaScript file is actually an image, allowing the browser to download the file and then subsequently executing that file, causing any number of negative outcomes for that site visitor, especially with what’s known as a Drive-by Download Attack.

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The X-Content-Type-Options header can stop that and other related attacks by disabling the ability of browsers from “sniffing” for the content type.

4. X-Frame-Options

The X-Frame-Options security header helps stop click-jacking attacks.

Mozilla describes Click-jacking as:

“…the practice of tricking a user into clicking on a link, button, etc. that is other than what the user thinks it is.

This can be used, for example, to steal login credentials or to get the user’s unwitting permission to install a piece of malware.”

The X-Frame-Options header works by preventing a web page from being rendered within an iframe, for example.

It prevents more than just iframe-based attacks, though.

Microsoft defines frame sniffing in this way:

“Framesniffing is an attack technique that takes advantage of browser functionality to steal data from a website.

Web applications that allow their content to be hosted in a cross-domain IFRAME may be vulnerable to this attack.

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The X-Frame-Options header can be used to control whether a page can be placed in an IFRAME.

Because the Framesniffing technique relies on being able to place the victim site in an IFRAME, a web application can protect itself by sending an appropriate X-Frame-Options header.”

The Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) provides a helpful explanation of click-jacking attacks:

“…imagine an attacker who builds a web site that has a button on it that says “click here for a free iPod”.

However, on top of that web page, the attacker has loaded an iframe with your mail account, and lined up exactly the “delete all messages” button directly on top of the “free iPod” button.

The victim tries to click on the “free iPod” button but instead actually clicked on the invisible “delete all messages” button.

In essence, the attacker has “hijacked” the user’s click, hence the name “Clickjacking”.”

The X-Frame-Options header is important for protecting your site visitors as well as your site’s reputation.

The OWASP web page on click-jacking goes on to describe how Adobe Flash fell victim to a click-jacking attack that allowed hackers to take control of microphones and cameras, thus cementing Flash’s negative reputation as a security nightmare.

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Becoming known across social media and the greater Internet as a security hazard is bad for business.

The X-Frame-Options header is a useful security measure to implement.

5. Referrer-Policy

The purpose of a Referrer-Policy header is to allow a website publisher to control what information is sent when a site visitor clicks a link to visit another website.

When a site visitor clicks a link and lands on another site, the visitor’s browser provides information about what web page sent that visit.

When you look at your server logs the referrer information is sent that tells what sites sent visitors.

However, there are some situations where the URL of the site referring a visitor to another visitor could contain sensitive information which could be leaked to a third party.

How the Referrer-Policy works is by limiting how much information is sent after a site visitor clicks a link.

A website publisher can choose to send no information as to the referrer, they can choose to send just the domain name or they can send the entire URL string.

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There are eight directives that can be sent using the Referrer-Policy header:

  • Referrer-Policy: no-referrer.
  • Referrer-Policy: no-referrer-when-downgrade.
  • Referrer-Policy: origin.
  • Referrer-Policy: origin-when-cross-origin.
  • Referrer-Policy: same-origin.
  • Referrer-Policy: strict-origin.
  • Referrer-Policy: strict-origin-when-cross-origin.
  • Referrer-Policy: unsafe-url.

A common referrer policy setting is Header “no-referrer-when-downgrade” which means that referrer information will be sent to trustworthy URLs that are on HTTPS but that no referrer information will be sent to untrusted HTTP websites.

It is important to note that the referrer policy setting will not affect affiliate links.

The referrer information is coded within the landing page URL, thus the referrer information and earnings are recorded by the merchant receiving the affiliate referral.

How To Implement Security Headers

There are multiple ways to set security headers, and one popular way is with an .htaccess file.

A benefit of using the .htaccess file is that it saves a publisher from downloading another plugin.

Poorly coded plugins can become a security risk, so minimizing the number of installed plugins can be useful.

Important: Every security header implementation is going to be different according to the specifics of each website, especially the Content-Security-Policy (CSP).

WordPress Plugins For Setting Security Headers

There are some popular plugins that are already installed on millions of websites that come with the option for setting security headers.

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If you already have these plugins installed, then the option for using a plugin rather than fussing with an .htaccess file is there for those who would prefer the convenience.

Really Simple SSL Pro

Over five million websites already have Really Simple SSL installed.

Upgrading to the reasonably priced pro version provides the option for setting up to eight security headers the easy way.

Redirection

The 100% free WordPress Redirection plugin has been around for over ten years and is installed on over 2 million websites.

This plugin allows you to choose from many different preset security headers in addition to the top five listed in this article.

Preset means that you can choose from the standard directives.

According to the Redirection WordPress download page:

“ADD HTTP HEADERS
HTTP headers can be added to redirects or your entire site that help reduce the impact of redirects or help increase security. You can also add your own custom headers.”

Additionally, the Redirection plugin allows you to custom craft your own security headers if there’s something there you don’t find.

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Screenshot of Security Headers UI, February 2022

The Redirection plugin makes it easy to successfully install the top five security headers:

  • X-Frame-Options.
  • X-Content-Type-Options.
  • Referrer-Policy.
  • Strict-Transport-Security.
  • Content-Security-Policy.

Set Security Headers With Cloudflare

Cloudflare has a way to set security headers using their Cloudflare workers.

Cloudflare also has another support page with directions:

“Attaching headers
To attach headers to Cloudflare Pages responses, create a _headers plain text file in the output folder of your project.

It is usually the folder that contains the deploy-ready HTML files and assets generated by the build, such as favicons.

The _headers file should not always be in the root directory of the repository. Changes to headers will be updated to your website at build time, so make sure you commit and push the file to trigger a new build each time you update headers.

Header rules are defined in multi-line blocks.

The first line of a block is the URL or URL pattern where the rule’s headers should be applied. On the next line, an indented list of header names and header values must be written…”

How To Check Security Headers

Security headers are easy to check.

SecurityHeaders.com offers a free security header checking service.

Web auditing software Screaming Frog also has the option for checking headers which is available in the Security Tab.

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Make Security Headers A Part Of Your SEO Audits

Security headers are something that many publishers or SEO experts might not consider.

But security headers are important and should be top of mind in every site audit, whether that audit is conducted in-house or by third-party SEO site auditing.

Website security is an SEO-related issue because failure to mitigate negative security issues can reverse every ranking-related success.

A negative reputation can hurt rankings and sales.

Loss of search visibility causes devastating losses.

Implementing security headers is relatively easy, it should be among the top boxes to check when publishing any website.

More resources: 


Featured Image: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

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How upskilling your paid advertising skills will tackle economic downturns

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How upskilling your paid advertising skills will tackle economic downturns

30-second summary:

  • Marketing budgets are often the first to be slashed in a downturn – upskilling your existing team with digital marketing techniques can provide huge efficiencies and minimize the impact of cuts
  • Creating an upskilling program does not need to be expensive or time-consuming if a well-thought-out strategy is adopted and results are constantly measured
  • Nurturing your own in-house talent pool also increases business resilience, improves marketing innovation and creativity, and reduces reliance on third-party operators
  • Choosing the right skills for your team to acquire depends both on your immediate goals and long-term business strategy – done right you can steal a march on your competitors
  • Sarah Gilchriest, Global COO of Circus Street, discusses the key skills brands need to cultivate to stay competitive during an economic downturn

We’re entering what is likely to be a pretty tough global recession. As consumer sentiment worsens, brands will increasingly look at ways they can cut costs to protect their bottom line. Unfortunately, we all know that marketing is usually one of the first budgets to be slashed.

It is seemingly much easier to stop a campaign or give an agency notice than it is to sack a developer or reduce infrastructure costs. However, more often than not, cutting marketing is a false economy that worsens the impact of a downturn by slowing a company’s growth. So, is there a way for brands to instead maximize their digital marketing output while also freezing or reducing costs?

The answer may be found in upskilling.

Training while cutting costs?

Now, your first reaction may be that training programs are expensive luxuries that make little sense if your goal is to cut costs. There are a few things to unpack here –

  1. Size and scope of training matter. You can make an outsized impact by training one or two individuals who then share their knowledge with their wider team. The right strategy (which I’ll discuss further below) can lead to a highly targeted program that gives the most critical skills to those who will be best placed to use them immediately.
  2. Next, there are a lot of freely available supporting resources that can significantly reduce costs and help to embed learning.
  3. Finally, let’s put costs in perspective. The ROI on a well-executed training scheme pays for itself and the initial outlay pales in comparison to most other business functions. Put simply, you get a lot of bang for your buck. 

Why paid advertising skills?

Paid advertising makes a lot of sense to focus on for a number of reasons. Generally, compared to other marketing fields, paid advertising is characterized by the sheer diversity of skills and techniques needed to fully execute a campaign. It is incredibly fast-moving and often requires you to leverage a number of different tech platforms. Consequently, many brands outsource this functionality to a network of agencies and freelancers. Those that don’t usually rely on one or two individual ‘power users’ or worse, skills are haphazardly spread among a range of departments leading to bottlenecks and single points of failure.

As such, digital advertising is usually the prime area where efficiencies, greater innovation, and marketing effectiveness can occur via upskilling. It is where your business can do much more for less. 

Identifying the right skills

Getting the right skill mix is where the rubber meets the road. A mixture of creativity, data analysis, platform knowledge, development techniques, and marketing expertise are all needed. To get started the best approach is to fully understand what capability your team has in-house. The crucial element is to remember that a lot of ability might be hidden because it is not used on a day-to-day basis. You would be surprised at how quickly a business ‘forgets’ about the previous experiences of team members after they have been hired.

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Auditing team skills should expand beyond the marketing department

You don’t know what gems are lurking in other areas of your business until you start to look. This is also the perfect opportunity to identify both the potential of your employees to acquire new skills and also their individual aspirations. It is much easier to upskill someone who has a professional and personal investment in learning that particular expertise. The audit itself does not need to be complex – a simple matrix that enables people to categorize their proficiency and outline the areas where they would like to develop will suffice.

When you know what you have to work with, then it’ll become much easier to define the best way forward. Deciding the best skill mix comes down to first working out how to fulfill your most immediate needs. For example, taking a costly service in-house, plugging a weakness – where a team member’s departure would severely hamper your ability to function, or obvious gaps in ability that prevent you from undertaking certain digital advertising activities.

Build on the compatibility between your employee’s aspirations and your commercial objectives

This is then overlaid by areas where your marketing output can most obviously be improved and your future aspirations in line with your commercial objectives. For example, if in the future you want to more heavily target users on particular social media platforms or ‘exotic’ platforms like IoT devices and digital boards. Perhaps you can see the financial benefits of adopting headless CMS tech and would like to put in place the skills needed to make that transition after the recession. Maybe you want your team to have the insight to tell you whether the Metaverse has any potential for your business.

This may sound complex but once you get started the hierarchy of skills you need more often than not becomes very obvious. Remember, one of upskilling’s great strengths is its flexibility – if your needs change or you feel you have chosen the wrong skills – it’s very easy to change track.

Getting started in a cost-efficient way

How you train your team is very much up to individual preferences – everyone learns in different ways. Speaking to your employees and specialists will enable you to build a tailored teaching structure. It can be a combination of in-house learning, online tutorials, accredited programs, or book learning. You do not have to go all in on a full program straight away. Piloting can remove a lot of the risk. Start small – one team or a handful of individuals from across your company – and continually assess the impact.

A mistake to avoid

A common mistake businesses make is they wait too long to get their team to use their new knowledge. This can hold up the process and damage ROI. The best way to embed new skills is to apply them. Ensure that your team has an opportunity to practice their newfound expertise on real initiatives. Then keep a close eye on your business metrics – including team and customer feedback – to determine the impact. Unlike many other departments, digital marketing can have very clear outputs. This will let you know quite quickly if it is working. From there, you can decide on how to roll out your training scheme. 

Marketing doesn’t end with the marketers

As I’ve mentioned, diversifying the skillset of your team builds resilience and promotes more innovation. The reason is simple, if you only have marketing skills in your marketing department, you are naturally limiting the number of people who can provide useful insights that fuel innovation. You reduce oversight and feedback loops, and your marketing output will suffer from a lack of outside perspectives. 

By making your teams multidisciplinary and cross-functional you can spread useful skills throughout your business. Customer service teams can learn the fundamentals of digital marketing, marketers know how to do the basic dev and data work to enable their day-to-day, and your data teams can think like marketers if they need to.

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Preparing for the worst doesn’t mean losing capabilities

If the worst does happen and you do need to make cuts to your team, having key skills shared across your business means that the damage to core functions will be limited.

To finish – I should highlight that much of what I’ve discussed applies equally to business owners as it does to individual freelancers. A downturn can be a daunting prospect if you are a sole trader. Upskilling can be one of the best ways to increase your value to clients now and future-proof your business.

If you have seen business drop off, the time you now have available could be best dedicated to more training. This may sound obvious, but a mistake many people make in their careers is failing to adapt to how demand for skills can quickly change or technology can come along that makes them obsolete. Adding more skill strings to you and your company’s bow is never a bad thing.


Sarah Gilchriest is the Global COO of Circus Street.

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